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The North American Fur Trade was the industry and activity dealing with the acquisition, exchange, and sale of animal fur in the North American continent. These activities originated with native peoples in the Pre-Columbian Era, but Europeans participated in the trade beginning from the time of their arrival in the New World. The 19th century North American fur trade involved the development of elaborate trade networks and companies.


French explorer Jacques Cartier in his three voyages into the Gulf of St. Lawrencemarker in the 1530s and 1540s provides one of the earliest examples of fur trading in North America. Cartier attempted limited fur trading with the First Nations in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and along the St. Lawrence Rivermarker. He concentrated on trading for furs used as trimming and adornment. He overlooked the fur that would become the driving force of the fur trade in the north, the beaver pelt.

The earliest origins of Europeans' trading for beaver pelts, however, trace back to the growing cod fishing industry that spread to the Grand Banksmarker of the North Atlantic in the 16th century. The new preservation technique of drying fish allowed the mainly Basque fishermen to economically fish near the Newfoundlandmarker coast. Drying fish enabled them to gather greater yields that justified the economic cost and long voyages across the Atlantic. The fisherman sought suitable harbors with ample lumber to dry the large quantities of cod. This facilitated their earliest contact with local Aboriginal peoples, with whom the fisherman began simple trading. The fishermen traded metal items for beaver robes made of sewn-together, native-tanned, beaver pelts. They used the robes to keep warm on the long, cold return voyage across the Atlantic. These castor gras in French (or "coat beaver" in English) were prized by European hat makers in the second half of the 16th century, who converted the pelts to felt. The discovery of the superior felting qualities of beaver fur, along with the rapidly increasing popularity of wearing beaver felt hats, transformed the merely incidental trading of fishermen in the sixteenth century into a growing trade in the French and later English territory in the next century.

New France in the 17th century

Map of New France (Champlain, 1612)

The transition from a seasonal coastal trade into a permanent interior fur trade was formally marked with the foundation of Quebecmarker in 1608 by Samuel de Champlain. This settlement marked the beginning of the westward movement of French traders from the first permanent settlement of Tadoussacmarker at the mouth of the Saguenay Rivermarker on the Gulf of St. Lawrencemarker, up the St. Lawrence Rivermarker and into the pays d'en haut (or "upper country") around the Great Lakesmarker. What followed in the first half of the 17th century were strategic moves on the part of both the French and the Indigenous groups to further their own economic and geopolitical ambitions.

Samuel de Champlain spearheaded a strategy of expansion while centralizing the French efforts. Owing to the primary role that the native peoples played in the fur trade as suppliers, Champlain quickly allied himself with the Algonquin, Montagnais, and most importantly, the Huron, who served as middlemen between the French on the St. Lawrence and nations in the pays d'en haut. Champlain supported the northern groups in their preexisting military struggle with the Iroquois to the south. He secured the Ottawa River route to Georgian Baymarker and greatly expanding the trade. Champlain also sent young French men to live and work among the natives, most notably Étienne Brûlé, to learn the land, language, and customs, as well as promote trade.

Champlain reformed the business of the trade, forming the first informal trust in 1613 in response to increasing losses due to competition. This trust was later formalized with a royal charter, leading to a series of monopolies throughout the life of New France. The most notable was the Company of One Hundred Associates, with occasional concessions, such as to Habitants in the 1640s and 1650s, permitting limited trading. While these monopolies dominated the trade, their charters also demanded annual returns, military expenditures, and held expectations of settlement for the sparsely populated New France. The vast wealth in the fur trade created enforcement problems for the monopoly whereby unlicensed independent traders, known as coureurs des bois (or “runners of the woods”), appeared in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The increasing use of currency as well as the importance of personal contacts and experience in the fur trade further gave an edge to independent traders over the more bureaucratic monopolies. The newly established English colonies to the south quickly joined the lucrative trade, raiding the St. Lawrence River valley and capturing and controlling Quebecmarker from 1629 to 1632.

While undoubtedly bringing wealth to a few select French traders and the French regime, the fur trade also brought profound changes to the indigenous groups living along the St. Lawrence. European wares such as iron axe heads, brass kettles, cloth, and firearms bought with beaver pelts and other furs greatly increased the standard of living for indigenous peoples. The subsequent destruction of beaver populations along the St. Lawrence fueled the fierce competition between the Iroquois and Huron for access to the rich fur-bearing lands of the Canadian Shield.

Iroquois access to firearms through Dutch and later English traders along the Hudson River increased the casualties. This greater bloodshed, previously unseen in Iroquoian warfare, increased the practice of “Mourning Wars”. The Iroquois raided neighboring groups to take captives, who were ritually adopted to replace the dead Iroquois; thus a cycle of violence and warfare escalated. More significantly, new infectious diseases brought by the French decimated native groups and broke up their communities. Combined with warfare, disease led to the near destruction of the Huron by 1650.

British and French competition

The era from roughly 1660 through 1763 saw a fierce rivalry grow between France and Great Britain as each European power struggled to expand their fur-trading territories. The two imperial powers and their native allies competed in conflicts that culminated in the French and Indian War, a part of the Seven Years' War in Europe.

The 1659-1660 voyage of French traders Pierre-Esprit Radisson and Médard Chouart des Groseilliers into the country north and west of Lake Superiormarker symbolically opened this new era of expansion. Their trading voyage proved extremely lucrative in furs. More importantly, they learned of a frozen sea to the north that provided easy access to the fur-bearing interior. Upon their return, French officials confiscated the furs of these unlicensed coureurs des bois. They went to Boston and then to London to gather funding and two ships to explore the Hudson Baymarker. Their success led to England's chartering of the Hudson's Bay Company in 1670, a major player in the fur trade for the next two centuries.

French exploration and expansion westward continued with men such as La Salle and Marquette exploring and claiming the Great Lakes as well as the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys. To bolster these territorial claims, the French constructed a series of small fortifications, beginning with Fort Frontenacmarker on Lake Ontariomarker in 1673. Together with construction of Le Griffon in 1679, the first full-sized sailing ship on the Great Lakes, they opened the upper Great Lakes to navigation.

During the 1640s and 1650s, the Iroquois Wars forced a massive demographic shift as Iroquioa's western neighbors fled the violence. They sought refuge west and north of Lake Michiganmarker. More native groups learned about European wares and became trading middlemen, most notably the Ottawa. The competitive impact of the new English Hudson's Bay Company trade was felt as early as 1671, with diminished returns for the French and the role of the native middlemen. This new competition directly stimulated French expansion into the North West to win back native customers. What followed was a continual expansion north and west of Lake Superiormarker. The French used diplomatic negotiations with natives to win back trade and an aggressive military policy to temporarily eliminate the Hudson's Bay competition. Furthermore, the English presence in New England grew stronger at the same time as inreasing French efforts to combat coureurs de bois and allied Indians from smuggling furs to the English for often higher prices and higher quality goods.

The settlement of native refugees from the Iroquois Wars in the western and northern Great Lakesmarker combined with the decline of the Ottawa middlemen to create vast new markets for French traders. Resurgent Iroquoian warfare in the 1680s also stimulated the fur trade as native French allies bought weapons. The new more distant markets and fierce English competition stifled direct trade from the North West with Montrealmarker. The old system of native middlemen and coureurs de bois traveling to trade fairs in Montreal or illegally to English markets was replaced with an increasingly complex and labor-intensive trade network. Licensed voyageurs allied with Montreal merchants used water routes to reach the far flung corners of the North West with canoe loads of trade goods. These risky ventures required large initial investments and had a very slow return. The first revenues from fur sales in Europe did not arrive until four or more years after the initial investment. These economic factors concentrated the fur trade in the hands of a few large Montreal merchants who had available capital. This trend expanded in the eighteenth century, and reached its zenith with the great fur-trading companies of the nineteenth century.

The English colonies

Company formation

Hudson's Bay Company

North West Company

American Fur Company

Russian-American Company

The Fur Trade in the western United States

Mountain men

Great plains

Social and cultural impact

The fur trade and its actors has played a certain role in films and popular culture. It was the topic of various books and films, from James Fenimore Cooper via Irving Pichels Hudson's Baymarker of 1941 the popular Canadian musical My Fur Lady (music by Galt MacDermot of 1957 till Nicolas Vaniers documentaries. However, in contrary to the "the huddy buddy narration of Canada as Hudson's country", propagated either in popular culture as well in elitist circles as the Beaver Club, founded 1785 in Montreal the often male centered scholarly description of the fur business doesn't describe the history properly. Chantal Nadeau, a communication scientist in Montreals Concordia University refers to Country Wives and Country Marriages of Indian women and white trappers and the Filles du Roy of the 18th century. In that respect, according Nadeau, women have been described as a sort of commodity "skin for skin" - essential for the sustainable prolongation of the fur trade.

Nadeau goes so far to describe fur as an essential, the fabric of Canadian symbolism and nationhood and applies this as well to the controversies around the Canadian seal hunt, with Brigitte Bardot as a leading figure. Bardot had been a model in the 1971 "Legend" Campaign of the US mink label Blackglama, posing naked in fur coats. Her involvement in anti-fur campaigns shortly afterwards was based on a request by Marguerite Yourcenar, which asked Bardot to engage herself and use her celebrity status in the anti-sealing movement. Both Bardots successes as anti-fur activist and her personal change from sex symbol till the grown up maman of white seal babies and her later involvement in French right wing politics were, according Nadeau, based on a closely connected ideology. It was as well closely intertwined with Canadas self finding processes as a nation, during and after the Quiet Revolution in Quebecmarker till the roll back of the anti-fur movement in the late 1990ies. Finally, the PETA celebrity campaign I'd rather go naked than wear fur turned around the skin for skin motto and symbology against fur and fur trade itself.

Métis people

Ecological impact

Modern day

Modern fur trapping and trading in North America is part of a wider $15 billion global fur industry where wild animal pelts make up only 15 percent of total fur output.

In 2008, the global recession hit the fur industry and trappers especially hard with greatly depressed fur prices thanks to a drop in the sale of expensive fur coats and hats. Such a drop in fur prices reflects trends of previous economic downturns.

See also




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